An Unhelpful Strategy
How should Christian parents and youth pastors counter the influence of atheism on the Internet? On the one hand, we might react by discouraging Christians from looking at websites that are threatening. But hiding from the challenge of atheism does not produce a robust faith. In fact, what it tends to do is set people up for future disaster. Sheltering believers from challenges is unhealthy. On the other hand, feasting on atheist apologetics is equally unhealthy, in fact it's worse. There needs to be wise guides shepherding Christian young people as they encounter Internet atheism. Otherwise, for some it can destroy their faith.
What can we do to stem that tide? Here are five practical suggestions that parents and youth pastors can do to help young believers as they encounter online atheist apologetics.
First, don’t panic. Although there are lots of websites offering counter arguments and attacking the case for Christianity there is no need to panic. I remember when I first encountered a website that appeared to me to level a very damaging charge against the reliability of the New Testament. To say the least, I was very troubled. It caused me a lot of anxiety and I wondered, "What if it's true?". I had never come across that information before, and I was unaware of any responses to it. Looking back, I realize that I overreacted. There were responses; I just needed to find them. Likewise, when young people tell you that they have discovered troubling claims against Christianity it’s easy to overreact. But don’t. Take a deep breath, hear what they have to say and begin a discussion with them about it. Ask questions such as:
- How does hearing this particular claim make you feel?
- How long have you been feeling this way?
- How persuaded are you that the objection is a good one?
- Have you investigated responses by thoughtful Christians?
In doing so, you will get a better sense of where the individual is at and how to respond with wisdom and kindness.
Second, while it might be tempting to simply dismiss atheist apologetic arguments as weak, foolish, or without force, that would be a mistake. For some Christians, atheist apologists appear to have powerful arguments against Christianity that they have never encountered before. This can cause a lot of anxiety and stress. But the best way to respond is not to subtly shame the struggling believer by merely dismissing their concerns as much ado about nothing. Rather, what a struggling believer needs is a patient, listening ear who can reassure them that when it comes to objections against the faith, there truly is nothing new under the sun. Which is to say, that in some cases an immediate answer to the problem may not be as important as a pastoral response that provides comfort and consolation.
Third, even though as mentioned above, some atheist apologists sound impressive it needs to be pointed out that much of the atheist apologetic material online is uninformed rhetoric not reasoned argument. Unfortunately, the same can also be said of some Christian apologetic material as well. Atheist websites that are informed and good sources of challenging objections to Christianity are almost always measured in their appraisal of the evidence and rarely engage in name-calling and insults. A sure sign of an unbalanced and uninformed webpage is when it contains statements like the following: "There are no good reasons to believe in Christianity," "All arguments for the existence of God have been defeated," "No rational person can look at the evidence and remain a believer." Such statements reveal more about the personality of the person(s) responsible for the webpage than they do the state of the evidence. Encourage believers to avoid such websites.
Fourth, encourage young people to avoid watching videos of Internet atheists out of a desire to feel as though they have investigated the other side. Being fair-minded and informed is admirable. But there are better and worse ways to do that. One of the worst ways is when young people investigate the atheist view without guidance. Doing so will likely cause them to have more doubts about their faith and move them closer to deconverting. There are two reasons for this. First, it is likely the case they’re not yet ready to think critically and engage with the claims made by Internet atheists. The untrained boxer who steps into the ring with a seasoned fighter isn't ready and will get knocked out in the first round.
The same is true of believers who have never been trained in Christian apologetics and who engage with online atheist apologists. That is not to say that young Christians should never be exposed to counterarguments. On the contrary, they should. Parents, youth pastors, and Christian leaders should be the ones who carefully, and with discernment, introduce believers to the counterarguments to Christianity. And then they ought to provide responses. You don’t need to be a professional apologist to do this well. There is a plethora of resources today that provide powerful responses to the best of atheist apologetics.
Second, young people need to be made aware that consuming large amounts of atheist apologetics without guidance, will likely result in a faith crisis. The reason for this is not because the case for atheism is so persuasive that merely being exposed to it makes it irresistible, but because we are not directly in control of what we believe. Our beliefs are largely passively formed in us by the evidence we find persuasive. Two factors that are involved in why we find evidence persuasive are how much of it we are exposed to and how effective (confident, winsome, persuasive) the person presenting it is. Without question there are several very effective Internet atheist apologists. Consuming large amounts of their content is a recipe for disaster.
Fifth, it is immensely helpful for young believers to be exposed to the objections to Christianity, not from Internet atheists but from Christians. Yes, that’s right. We should be the ones introducing our young people to the challenges raised by unbelievers before they hear them from skeptics. Then we follow up by providing them with responses. Of course, doing so requires care and discernment. Not everyone needs to hear objections to their faith. It will take wisdom to know to whom and when to raise challenges. But for evidentially minded believers, I can think of two benefits. First, it can instill a sense of calm and even confidence in them by letting them know that as Christians we are aware of the various challenges that skeptics have raised and that we find them unpersuasive. Second, like traditional vaccines, being exposed to the claims of atheist apologetics in a safe environment can inoculate them from further exposure online.
Final Word of Encouragement
A final word needs to be said. Christians shouldn’t fear the Internet. On the one hand, as we have seen it can negatively impact a believer’s faith because it exposes them to objections they would otherwise never have encountered. Nevertheless, we can’t shelter young people from opposing views. Doing so will only make those views more alluring to investigate. What we can do is inoculate young people to the best of atheist apologetics available online by exposing them to it in a wise and careful manner and then providing responses.
On the other hand, just as the Internet has provided access to objections to Christianity it has also provided access to some of the best resources for responding to those objections. In other words, the Internet cuts both ways. It can be a tool for tearing down faith, but it can also be a tool for instilling confidence that Christianity is true. The difference often comes down to who introduces young believers to the objections, parents and youth pastors or Internet atheists. The first can lead to a deeper, more confident faith. The latter down the rabbit hole of doubt and bottoming out in deconversion.
For a helpful resource to guide young people to a lasting faith, check out the new book Set Adrift by Sean McDowell and John Marriott.